A table-like structure, on which sacrifices and incense were offered, built of various materials, usually of stone, but sometimes of brass, etc. It is evident that sacrifices were offered long before the flood; but the first mention of an altar in Scripture is when Noah left the ark. Mention is made of altars reared by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. The latter was commanded to build an altar of earth, Ex 20:24. If stone was employed, it must be rough and unhewn, probably lest the practice of sculpture should lead them to violate the second commandment. It was not to be furnished with steps, De 27:2-6.
The altars in the Jewish tabernacle, and in the temple at Jerusalem, were the following: 1. The altar of burnt offerings. 2. The altar of incense. 3. The table of showbread, for which see BREAD.
1. THE ALTAR OF BURNT-OFFERINGS was a kind of coffer of shittim-wood covered with brass plates, about seven feet six inches square, and four feet six inches in height. At the four corners were four horns, or elevations. It was portable, and had rings and staves for bearing in, Ex 27-28. It was placed in the court before the tabernacle, towards the east. The furniture of the altar was of brass, and consisted of a pan, to receive the ashes that fell through the grating; shovels; basins, to contain the blood with which the altar was sprinkled; and forks, to turn and remove the pieces of flesh upon the coals. The fire was a perpetual one, kindled miraculously, and carefully cherished. Upon this altar the lamb of the daily morning and evening sacrifice was offered, and the other stated and voluntary blood-sacrifices and meat and drink-offerings. To this also certain fugitives were allowed to flee and find protection. The altar in Solomon's temple was larger, being about thirty feet square and fifteen feet high, 2Ch 4:1. It is said to have been covered with thick plates of brass and filled with stones, with an ascent on the east side. It is often called "the brazen altar."
2.THE ALTAR OF INCENSE was a small table of shittim-wood, covered with plates of gold; it was eighteen inches square, and three feet high, Ex 30; 37:25, etc. At the four corners were four horns, and all around its top was a little border or crown. On each side were two rings, into which staves might be inserted for the purpose of carrying it. It stood in the Holy place; not in the Holy of Holies, but before it, between the golden candlestick and the table of showbread, and the priests burned incense upon it every morning and evening. So Zacharias, Lu 1:9,11. See TEMPLE.
3. ALTAR AT ATHENS, inscribed "to the unknown God,"
Ac 17:23. It is certain. Both from Paul's assertion and the testimony of Greek writers, that altars to an unknown or gods existed at Athens. But the attempt to ascertain definitely whom the Athenians worshipped under this appellation must ever remain fruitless for want of sufficient data. The inscription afforded to Paul a happy occasion of proclaiming the gospel; and those who embraced it found it indeed that the Being whom they had thus ignorantly worshipped was the one only living and true God.
(Heb. mizbe'ah, from a word meaning "to slay"), any structure of earth (Ex 20:24) or unwrought stone (Ex 20:25) on which sacrifices were offered. Altars were generally erected in conspicuous places (Ge 22:9; Eze 6:3; 2Ki 23:12; 16:4; 23:8; Ac 14:13). The word is used in Heb 13:10 for the sacrifice offered upon it--the sacrifice Christ offered.
Paul found among the many altars erected in Athens one bearing the inscription, "To the unknown God" (Ac 17:23), or rather "to an [i.e., some] unknown God." The reason for this inscription cannot now be accurately determined. It afforded the apostle the occasion of proclaiming the gospel to the "men of Athens."
The first altar we read of is that erected by Noah (Ge 8:20). Altars were erected by Abraham (Ge 12:7; 13:4; 22:9), by Isaac (Ge 26:25), by Jacob (Ge 33:20; 35:1,3), and by Moses (Ex 17:15, "Jehovah-nissi").
In the tabernacle, and afterwards in the temple, two altars were erected.
This altar, as erected in the tabernacle, is described in Ex 27:1-8. It was a hollow square, 5 cubits in length and in breadth, and 3 cubits in height. It was made of shittim wood, and was overlaid with plates of brass. Its corners were ornamented with "horns" (Ex 29:12; Le 4:18).
In Solomon's temple the altar was of larger dimensions (2Ch 4:1. Comp. 1Ki 8:22,64; 9:25), and was made wholly of brass, covering a structure of stone or earth. This altar was renewed by Asa (2Ch 15:8). It was removed by Ahaz (2Ki 16:14), and "cleansed" by Hezekiah, in the latter part of whose reign it was rebuilt. It was finally broken up and carried away by the Babylonians (Jer 52:17).
After the return from captivity it was re-erected (Ezr 3:3,6) on the same place where it had formerly stood. (Comp. 1 Macc. 4:47.) When Antiochus Epiphanes pillaged Jerusalem the altar of burnt offering was taken away.
Again the altar was erected by Herod, and remained in its place till the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (70 A.D.).
The fire on the altar was not permitted to go out (Le 6:9).
In the Mosque of Omar, immediately underneath the great dome, which occupies the site of the old temple, there is a rough projection of the natural rock, of about 60 feet in its extreme length, and 50 in its greatest breadth, and in its highest part about 4 feet above the general pavement. This rock seems to have been left intact when Solomon's temple was built. It was in all probability the site of the altar of burnt offering. Underneath this rock is a cave, which may probably have been the granary of Araunah's threshing-floor (1Ch 21:22).
(2.) The altar of incense (Ex 30:1-10), called also "the golden altar" (Ex 39:38; Nu 4:11), stood in the holy place "before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony." On this altar sweet spices were continually burned with fire taken from the brazen altar. The morning and the evening services were commenced by the high priest offering incense on this altar. The burning of the incense was a type of prayer (Ps 141:2; Re 5:8; 8:3-4).
Illustration: Brazen and Golden Altars
This altar was a small movable table, made of acacia wood overlaid with gold (Ex 37:25-26). It was 1 cubit in length and breadth, and 2 cubits in height.
In the temple built after the Exile the altar was restored. Antiochus Epiphanes took it away, but it was afterwards restored by Judas Maccabaeus (1 Macc. 1:23; 4:49). Among the trophies carried away by Titus on the destruction of Jerusalem the altar of incense is not found, nor is any mention made of it in Heb 9. It was at this altar Zacharias ministered when an angel appeared to him (Lu 1:11). It is the only altar which appears in the heavenly temple (Isa 6:6; Re 8:3-4).
The first of which we have mention was built by Noah after leaving the ark (Ge 8:20). The English (from the Latin) means an elevation or high place: not the site, but the erections on them which could be built or removed (1Ki 12:7; 2Ki 23:15). So the Greek bomos, and Hebrew bamath. But the proper Hebrew name mizbeach is "the sacrificing place;" Septuagint thusiasterion. Spots hallowed by divine revelations or appearances were originally the sites of altars (Ge 12:7; 13:18; 26:25; 35:1). Mostly for sacrificing; sometimes only as a memorial, as that named by Moses Jehovah Nissi, the pledge that Jehovah would war against Amalek to all generations (Ex 17:15-16), and that built by Reuben, Gad, and half Manasseh, "not for burnt offering, nor sacrifice, but as a witness" (Jos 22:26-27).
Altars were to be made only of earth or else unhewn stone, on which no iron tool was used, and without steps up to them (Ex 20:24-26). Steps toward the E. on the contrary are introduced in the temple yet future (Eze 43:17), marking its distinctness from any past temple. No pomp or ornament was allowed; all was to be plain and simple; for it was the meeting place between God and the sinner, and therefore a place of shedding of blood without which there is no remission (Le 17:11; Heb 9:22), a place of fellowship with God for us only through death. The mother dust of earth, or its stones in their native state as from the hand of God, were the suitable material. The art of sinful beings would mar, rather than aid, the consecration of the common meeting ground. The earth made for man's nourishment, but now the witness of his sin and drinker in of his forfeited life, was the most suitable (see Fairbairn, Typology). The altar was at "the door of the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation" (Ex 40:29).
In the tabernacle the altar of burnt offering was made of shittim (acacia) boards overlaid with brass, terming a square of five cubits, or eight feet. three cubits high or five feet, the hollow within being probably filled with earth or stones. A ledge (Hebrew karkob) projected on the side for the priest to stand on, to which a slope of earth gradually led up on the S. side, and outside the ledge was a network of brass. At the grainers were four horn shaped projections. to which the victim was bound (Ps 118:27), and which were touched with blood in consecrating priests (Ex 29:12), and in the sin offering (Le 4:7). The horn symbolizes might. The culmination's of the altar, being hornlike, imply the mighty salvation and security which Jehovah engages to the believing worshippers approaching Him in His own appointed way. Hence it was the asylum or place of refuge (1Ki 1:50; Ex 21:14).
So the Antitype, Christ (Isa 27:5; 25:4). To grasp the altar horns in faith was to lay hold of Jehovah's strength. In Solomon's temple the altar square was entirely of brass, and was 20 cubits, or from 30 to 35 feet, and the height 10 cubits. In Mal 1:7,12, it is called "the table of the Lord." In Herod's temple the altar was 50 cubits long, and 50 broad, and 15 high; a pipe from the S.W. grainer conveyed away the blood to the brook Kedron. Except in emergencies (as Jg 6:24; 1Sa 7:9-10; 2Sa 24:18,25; 1Ki 8:64; 18:31-32) only the one altar was sanctioned (Le 17:8-9; De 12:13-14), to mark the unity and ubiquity of God, as contrasted with the many altars of the manifold idols and local deities of pagandom. Every true Israelite, wherever he might be, realized his share in the common daily sacrifices at the one altar in Zion, whence Jehovah ruled to the ends of the earth.
Christ is the antitype, the one altar or meeting place between God and man, the one only atonement for sinners, the one sacrifice, and the one priest (Ac 4:12; Heb 13:10). Christ's Godhead, on which He offered His manhood, "sanctifieth the gift" (Mt 23:19), and prevents the sacrifice being consumed by God's fiery judicial wrath against man's sin. To those Judaizers who object that Christians have no altar or sacrificial meats, Paul says, "we have" (the emphasis in Greek is on have; there is no we) emphatically, but it is a spiritual altar and sacrifice. So Heb 4:14-15; 8:1; 9:1; 10:1,19-21. The interpretation which makes "altar" the Lord's table is opposed to the scope of the Epistle to the Heb., which contrasts the outward sanctuary with the unseen spiritual sanctuary.
Romanisers fall under the condemnation of Ho 8:11. The Epistle to the Hebrew reasons, servile adherents to visible altar meats are excluded from our Christian spiritual altar and meats: "For He, the true Altar, from whom we derive spiritual meats, realized the sin offering type" (of which none of the meat was eaten, but all was burnt: Le 6:30) "by suffering without the gate: teaching that we must go forth after Him from the Jewish high priest's camp of legal ceremonialism and meats, which stood only until the gospel times of reformation" (Heb 9:10-11). The temple and holy city were the Jewish people's camp in their solemn feasts.
The brass utensils for the altar (Ex 27:3) were pans, to receive the ashes and fat; shovels, for removing the ashes; basins, for the blood; flesh hooks, with three prongs, to take flesh out of the cauldron (1Sa 2:13-14); firepans, or censers, for taking coals off the altar, or for burning incense (Le 16:12; Nu 16:6-7; Ex 25:38); the same Hebrew maktoth means snuff dishes, as "tongs" means snuffers for the candlesticks. Asa "renewed" the altar, i.e. reconsecrated it, after it had been polluted by idolatries (2Ch 20:8). (See AHAZ (see) removed it to the N. side of the new altar which Urijah the priest had made after the pattern which Ahaz had seen at Damascus (2Ki 16:14). Hezekiah had it "cleansed" (2Ch 29:12-18) of all the uncleanness brought into it in Ahaz' reign. Manasseh, on his repentance, repaired it (2Ch 33:16). Rabbis pretended it stood on the spot where man was created. In Zerubbabel's temple the altar was built before the temple foundations were laid (Ezr 3:2).
After its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes, Judas Maccabaeus built a new altar of unhewn stones. A perpetual fire kept on it symbolized the perpetuity of Jehovah's religion; for, sacrifice being the center of the Old Testament worship, to extinguish it would have been to extinguish the religion. The perpetual fire of the Persian religion was different, for this was not sacrificial, but a symbol of God, or of the notion that, fire was a primary element. The original fire of the tabernacle "came out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat" (Le 9:24). The rabbis say, It couched upon the altar like a lion, bright as the sun, the flame solid and pure, consuming things wet and dry alike, without smoke. The divine fire on the altar; the shekinah cloud, representing the divine habitation with them, which was given to the king and the high priest with the oil of unction; the spirit of prophecy; the Urim and Thummim whereby the high priest miraculously learned God's will; and the ark of the covenant, whence God gave His answers in a clear voice, were the five things of the old temple wanting in the second temple.
Heated stones (Hebrew) were laid upon the altar, by which the incense was kindled (Isa 6:6). The golden altar of incense (distinguished from the brazen altar of burnt offering), of acacia wood (in Solomon's temple cedar) underneath, two cubits high, one square. Once a year, on the great day of atonement, the high priest sprinkled upon its horns the blood of the sin offering (Ex 30:6-10; Le 16:18-19). Morning and evening incense was burnt on it with fire taken from the altar of burnt offering. It had a border round the top, and two golden rings at the sides for the staves to bear it with. It was "before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat;" between the candlestick and the shewbread table. In Heb 9:4, KJV, "censer," not "altar of incense," is right; for the latter was in the outer not the inner holy place.
The inner, or holiest, place "had the golden censer" belonging to its yearly atonement service, not kept in it. The altar of incense also was close by the second veil, directly before the ark (1Ki 6:22), "by (Hebrew b
1. The original purpose of an altar was to serve as a means by which the blood of an animal offered in sacrifice might be brought into contact with, or otherwise transferred to, the deity of the worshipper. For this purpose in the earliest period a single stone sufficed. Either the blood was poured over this stone, which was regarded as the temporary abode of the deity, or the stone was anointed with part, and the rest poured out at its base. The introduction of fire to consume the flesh in whole or in part belongs to a later stage in the history of sacrifice (wh. see). But even when this stage had long been reached, necessity might compel a temporary reversion to the earlier modus operandi, as we learn from Saul's procedure in 1Sa 14:33 f. From the altar of a single 'great stone' (1Sa 6:14) the transition was easy to an altar built of unhewn stones (Ex 20:25; De 27:5 f. RV), which continued to he the normal type of Hebrew altar to the end (see 1Ma 4:41; Josephus BJ V. v. 6).
2. Another type of pre-historic altar, to which much less attention has been paid, had its origin in the primitive conception of sacrifice as the food of the gods. As such it was appropriately presented on a table. Now the nearest analogy to the disc of leather spread on the ground, which was and is the table of the Semitic nomad, was the smooth face of the native rock, such as that on which Manoah spread his offering (Jg 13:19 f., cf. Jg 6:20 f.). The well-known rock-surfaces, in Palestine and elsewhere, with their mysterious cup-marks
A structure on which to offer sacrifices to God: imitated by the heathen in honour of their false gods. The first altar we read of was built by Noah on leaving the ark, on which he offered burnt offerings of every clean beast and clean fowl. Ge 8:20. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob also built altars to the Lord: these would have been constructed of stone or earth, but it is remarkable that we seldom read of their offering sacrifices on them. At times it is simply said they built an altar unto the Lord and at other times they built an altar and called upon the name of the Lord. The altars appear to have been erected as places of drawing near to God, of which sacrifice was the basis.
Moses was told that in all places where God recorded His name they should build an altar of wood or of stone and offer thereon sheep and oxen for burnt offerings and peace offerings; but such altars if made of stone were not to be made of hewn stone; for had they lifted up a tool upon it, it would have been defiled. Ex 20:25-26. There must be nothing of man's handiwork in approaching to God: a principle, alas, grossly violated in the professing church of God! It is added, "neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon." Man's contrivance is here forbidden, for in divine things anything of his only manifests the utter shamelessness of that which springs from fallen nature: cf. Col 2:20-23. When the tabernacle was made, minute instructions were given to Moses, and he was to make everything as had been shown him in the mount.
The first altar of which we have any account is that built by Noah when he left the ark.
In the early times altars were usually built in certain spots hallowed by religious associations, e.g., where God appeared.
Though generally erected for the offering of sacrifice, in some instances they appear to have been only memorials.
Altars were most probably originally made of earth. The law of Moses allowed them to be made of either earth or unhewn stones.
I. The Altar of Burnt Offering. It differed in construction at different times. (1) In the tabernacle,
ff.; Exod 38:1 ff., it was comparatively small and portable. In shape it was square. It as five cubits in length, the same in breadth, and three cubits high. It was made of planks of shittim (or acacia) wood overlaid with brass. The interior was hollow.
At the four corners were four projections called horns made, like the altar itself, of shittim wood overlaid with brass,
and to them the victim was bound when about to be sacrificed.
Round the altar, midway between the top and bottom, ran a projecting ledge, on which perhaps the priest stood when officiating. To the outer edge of this, again, a grating or network of brass was affixed, and reached to the bottom of the altar. At the four corners of the network were four brazen rings, into which were inserted the staves by which the altar was carried. These staves were of the same material as the altar itself. As the priests were forbidden to ascend the altar by steps,
it has been conjectured that a slope of earth led gradually up to the ledge from which they officiated. The place of the altar was at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.)"
(2) In Solomon's temple the altar was considerably larger in its dimensions. It differed too in the material of which it was made, being entirely of brass.
It had no grating, and instead of a single gradual slope, the ascent to it was probably made by three successive platforms, to each of which it has been supposed that steps led. The altar erected by Herod in front of the temple was 15 cubits in height and 50 cubits in length and breadth. According to
a perpetual fire was to be kept burning on the altar. II. The Altar of Incense, called also the golden altar to distinguish it from the altar of burnt offering which was called the brazen altar.
(a) That in the tabernacle was made of acacia wood, overlaid with pure gold. In shape it was square, being a cubit in length and breadth and two cubits in height. Like the altar of burnt offering it had horns at the four corners, which were of one piece with the rest of the altar. This altar stood in the holy place, "before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony."
(b) The altar of Solomon's temple was similar,
but was made of cedar overlaid with gold. III. Other Altars. In
reference is made to an alter to an unknown God. There were several altars in Athens with this inscription, erected during the time of a plague. Since they knew not what god was offended and required to be propitiated.
ALTAR. Sacrifices are nearly as ancient as worship, and altars are of almost equal antiquity. Scripture speaks of altars, erected by the patriarchs, without describing their form, or the materials of which they were composed. The altar which Jacob set up at Bethel, was the stone which had served him for a pillow; Gideon sacrificed on the rock before his house. The first altars which God commanded Moses to raise, were of earth or rough stones; and it was declared that if iron were used in constructing them they would become impure, Ex 20:24-25. The altar which Moses enjoined Joshua to build on Mount Ebal, was to be of unpolished stones, De 27:5; Jos 8:31; and it is very probable that such were those built by Samuel, Saul, and David. The altar which Solomon erected in the temple was of brass, but filled, it is believed, with rough stones, 2Ch 4:1-3. It was twenty cubits long, twenty wide, and ten high. That built at Jerusalem, by Zerubbabel, after the return from Babylon, was of rough stones; as was that of Maccabees. Josephus says that the altar which in his time was in the temple was of rough stones, fifteen cubits high, forty long, and forty wide.
Among the Romans altars were of two kinds, the higher and the lower; the higher were intended for the celestial gods, and were called altaria, from altus; the lower were for the terrestrial and infernal gods, and were called arae. Those dedicated to the heavenly gods were raised a great height above the surface of the earth; those of the terrestrial gods were almost even with the surface; and those for the infernal deities were only holes dug in the ground called scrobiculi.
Before temples were in use the altars were placed in the groves, highways, or on tops of mountains, inscribed with the names, ensigns, or characters of the respective gods to whom they belonged. The great temples at Rome generally contained three altars; the first in the sanctuary, at the foot of the statue, for incense and libations; the second before the gate of the temple, for the sacrifices of victims; and the third was a portable one for the offerings and sacred vestments or vessels to lie upon. The ancients used to swear upon the altars upon solemn occasions, such as confirming alliances, treaties of peace, &c. They were also places of refuge, and served as an asylum and sanctuary to all who fled to them, whatever their crimes were.
The principal altars among the Jews were those of incense, of burnt- offering, and the altar or table for the shew bread. The altar of incense was a small table of shittim wood covered with plates of gold. It was a cubit long, a cubit broad, and two cubits high. At the four corners were four horns. The priest, whose turn it was to officiate, burnt incense on this altar, at the time of the morning sacrifice between the sprinkling of the blood and the laying of the pieces of the victim on the altar of burnt-offering. He did the same also in the evening, between the laying of the pieces on the altar and the drink-offering. At the same time the people prayed in silence, and their prayers were offered up by the priests. The altar of burnt-offering was of shittim wood also, and carried upon the shoulders of the priests, by staves of the same wood overlaid with brass. In Moses's days it was five cubits square, and three high: but it was greatly enlarged in the days of Solomon, being twenty cubits square, and ten in height. It was covered with brass, and had a horn at each corner to which the sacrifice was tied. This altar was placed in the open air, that the smoke might not sully the inside of the tabernacle or temple. On this altar the holy fire was renewed from time to time, and kept constantly burning. Hereon, likewise, the sacrifices of lambs and bullocks were burnt, especially a lamb every morning at the third hour, or nine of the clock, and a lamb every afternoon at three, 4/type/common'>Ex 20:24-25; 27:1-2,4; 38:1. The altar of burnt-offering had the privilege of being a sanctuary or place of refuge. The wilful murderer, indeed, sought protection there in vain; for by the express command of God he might be dragged to justice, even from the altar. The altar or table of shew bread was of shittim wood also, covered with plates of gold, and had a border round it adorned with sculpture. It was two cubits long, one wide, and one and a half in height. This table stood in the sanctum sanctorum, [holy of holies,] and upon it were placed the loaves of shew bread. After the return of the Jews from their captivity, and the building of the second temple, the form and size of the altars were somewhat changed.
Sacrifices according to the laws of Moses, could not be offered except by the priests; and at any other place than on the altar of the tabernacle or the temple. Furthermore, they were not to be offered to idols, nor with any superstitious rites. See Le 17:1-7; De 12:15-16. Without these precautionary measures, the true religion would hardly have been secure. If a different arrangement had been adopted, if the priests had been scattered about to various altars, without being subjected to the salutary restraint which would result from a mutual observation of each other, they would no doubt some of them have willingly consented to the worship of idols; and others, in their separate situation, would not have been in a condition to resist the wishes of the multitude, had those wishes been wrong. The necessity of sacrificing at one altar, (that of the tabernacle or temple,) is frequently and emphatically insisted on, De 12:13-14; and all other altars are disapproved, Le 26:30, compare Jos 22:9-34. Notwithstanding this, it appears that, subsequently to the time of Moses, especially in the days of the kings, altars were multiplied; but they fell under suspicions, although some of them were perhaps sacred to the worship of the true God. It is, nevertheless, true, that prophets, whose characters were above all suspicion, sacrificed, in some instances, in other places than the one designated by the laws, 1Sa 13:3-14; 16:1-5; 1Ki 18:21-40.